Kansas man wins free speech battle with city over yard sign

A homeowner in Valley Center, Kansas won a judgment of $8000 against the city who sued him for criminal defamation after he posted a yard sign criticizing the city administration. -db

The Topeka Capital-Journal
November 13, 2010
By Roxana Hegeman

WICHITA (AP)— A Valley Center homeowner can again display a yard sign criticizing the city and its administrator without fear.

Details surfaced Saturday of the court settlement in a First Amendment case that arose after homeowner Jarrod West put a sign in his yard protesting inaction on a water drainage problem. Valley Center sued West for criminal defamation and later withdrew the lawsuit.

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri moved forward with a lawsuit it filed on West’s behalf, asking a judge to order Valley Center to stop interfering with his freedom of speech after the city refused to assure him it would not refile the charge if he put the sign up again. A court filing Friday indicated the case had been settled, just days before an injunction hearing that had been scheduled for the coming week.

“I am thrilled that sanity has returned to Valley Center,” ACLU attorney Doug Bonney said Saturday. “It was very unfortunate that the ACLU had to file this classic free speech case in order to ensure that Jarrod West could protest his city government’s inaction and failure to address a basic issue of city services.”

The city has also agreed to pay West $2,000 for damages plus $6,000 in attorney fees to settle the case, he said.

“The First Amendment’s cardinal purpose is to prohibit government from prosecuting citizens for seditious libel. But, when faced with Mr. West’s protest sign, that is exactly what the City of Valley Center did prosecute Mr. West for criminal libel. That is an outrage,” Bonney said.

William Tretbar, the attorney representing Valley Center in the case, did not return a message for comment.

According to the lawsuit, West put up a sign on June 25 in his yard that read: “Dear Valley Center, I did not buy Lake Front Property! Fix this problem. This is what I pay taxes for. P.S. Joel this means you!”

The “Joel” that the sign referred to was City Administrator Joel Pile.

The ACLU said in its complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Wichita that City Attorney Barry Arbuckle sent West a letter questioning the factual accuracy of the yard sign, particularly Pile’s personal responsibility for drainage problems.

West, fearing legal action by the city, removed the yard sign on July 10.

Eight days later, Valley Center named West as a defendant in a criminal complaint, alleging the sign’s claims exposed Pile to public contempt and ridicule and tended to deprive him of “the benefit of public confidence and social acceptance,” according to court documents.

A month later, the city dismissed the complaint without prejudice, meaning it could refile the charges. When West asked whether the city would bring charges if he displayed the same yard sign, the city attorney allegedly responded, “I will not advise of my action should Mr. West republish his sign,” according to the ACLU’s lawsuit.

Bonney said he hoped this case is an “object lesson” for all governments.

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